Minnesota State Senator Jim Abeler: Stealth antivaccine advocate?

Last week, the World Health Organization included vaccine hesitancy on its list of top ten global health threats for 2019. In his discussion of the issue, Steve Novella recounted a depressing litany of outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases all over the world, particularly in Europe, to which vaccine hesitancy and the antivaccine movement have been major contributors. Thus far in the US, we’ve avoided the massive outbreaks of measles that are continuing in Europe and Israel, for instance. That’s not to say that we don’t have our own outbreaks. Currently, there are measles outbreaks in New York City in ultra-Orthodox Jewish populations and Clark County, Washington (just across the Columbia River from Portland). A couple of years ago, antivaxers contributed directly to a large measles outbreak among the Somali immigrant population in Minnesota. Basically, local antivaccine groups laying the groundwork by taking advantage of an observation that there appeared to be a higher prevalence of autism among the children of Somali immigrants by promoting Andrew Wakefield’s discredited and fraudulent research linking the MMR vaccine to autism. As a result, uptake of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine plummeted. Basically, antivaxers targeted a vulnerable community—repeatedly—with antivaccine propaganda. Indeed, Andrew Wakefield himself even paid Minnesota a visit in 2010. Even as the outbreak was raging, antivaxers doubled down, sending Mark Blaxill there to tell the Somalis, in essence, not to listen to the public health authorities desperately trying to contain the outbreak. In light of that recent history, it was particularly disturbing to see what was reported in Minnesota last month, courtesy of Minnesota State Senator Jim Abeler:

Autism activists are concerned that the appointment of vaccine skeptics to a newly formed state council gives credibility to views the state has struggled to dispel.

The MN Autism Council was formed last fall by Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, to discuss autism and advise the Legislature on public policy.

Abeler said he wants the group to represent diverse viewpoints and said it will be focused on issues like housing, employment and education, not vaccines.

First of all, it is very common for antivaxers who believe against all evidence that vaccines cause autism to cloak their true nature in autism advocacy, at least for purposes of appearing “respectable” and insinuating themselves into advisory committees for government and nonprofits. In fairness, some of them actually do autism advocacy work because many of them became antivaxers after having a child diagnosed with autism. The problem is that these same antivaxers use their autism advocacy to promote their antivaccine views as well. Indeed, an unfortunate problem with autism advocacy in the age of Wakefield is that autism advocacy is all too often tainted with antivaccine views. Some autism advocacy groups, like Autism Speaks, have tried to have it both ways, doing a “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” in their stances on vaccines and autism.

So who is Sen. Abeler, and who are the antivaxers now serving on the Minnesota Autism Council? Well, surprise, surprise, Jim Abeler is a chiropractor, or, as I like to say, a substandard physical therapist with delusions of grandeur. His clinic website features the usual chiropractic quackery about subluxations and spinal manipulation, but also includes quackery for ADHD, colic, ear infections, pregnancy, and chiropractic care for children. It describes Abeler thusly:

His technique includes a gentle approach to spinal care utilizing the use of an Activator for adjusting, kinesiology, spinal and muscular balancing, nutritional advice and a strong emphasis on personal responsibility on the part of the patient. In addition, Dr. Abeler looks for underlying causes of any disturbance or disruption (which may or may not be causing symptoms at the time) and make whatever interventions and lifestyle adjustments that would optimize the conditions for normal function.

In other words, the usual “we treat the underlying causes” nonsense favored by alternative medicine practitioners everywhere.

Elsewhere on Abeler’s website, we find a blog post on how chiropractic can “boost your immunity”:

Chiropractic adjustments can remove misalignments, allowing the nerves in your spine to operate with less interference. When the brain and nervous system are able to communicate effectively your immune system is back running at full capacity. Anoka chiropractic doctors may also reduce your back pain, neck pain, jaw pain, headaches, and shoulder pain so you can function in your day-to-day life more efficiently. While chiropractic treatment can influence your immune system directly, it can also heal your body so you are in a position to be more active.

And for children:

Kids seem to be at the mercy of just about every type of virus and illness out there and childhood immunity is always a hot topic of conversation. Things like ear infections, colds, allergies, and tonsillitis can cause a lot of discomfort and become serious in some cases. Just as with adults, children can receive chiropractic treatment that will ease tension on nerves and improve their immune response.

Interestingly, even doing Google Advanced Searches, I was unable to find any posts on vaccines on Jim Abeler’s website. Ditto when I searched for the word “autism”. However, there are strong reasons to suspect nonetheless that Sen. Abeler is antivaccine. The first of these is that he’s a chiropractor, and chiropractic as a “profession” is rife with antivaccine views, with many, if not most, chiropractors discouraging vaccination in favor of their quackery. Chiropractic is like naturopathy in that respect, full of antivaccine pseudoscience. Second, he chose two prominent antivaxers to be on the panel, Wayne Rohde, co-founder of the Vaccine Safety Council of Minnesota, one of the groups involved in promoting antivaccine views among the Somali immigrants in its state, and Patti Carroll, who was involved with organizing antivaccine outreach in the Minnesota Somali community. Rohde is also an executive for Health Choice, a group that believes that most chronic health issues in children are due to “unhealthy choices,” including “industrial processed foods, side effects of vaccine choices, and other environmental and lifestyle factors.” If you check out the Vaccine Safety Council’s website, you’ll find it packed with the usual antivaccine talking points:

GUIDING PRINCIPLES

  • We demand full disclosure by government and health officials of both the risks and benefits of vaccines.
  • We support unbiased safety studies for every vaccine and every combination of vaccines the government recommends.
  • We provide education on dishonest representation, legal issues, parental choice, and true informed consent.
  • We advocate for complete transparency by state and federal officials in vaccine law and policy decisions.
  • We promote consumer safety by calling for vaccines free from mercury, aluminum and other dangerous ingredients.
  • We work to preserve individual freedoms by opposing mandatory vaccination.

Note the antivaccine dog whistles, such as “unbiased safety studies” (translation: any study not run by big pharma or the government or academic institutions), “full disclosure” of “risks and benefits” (in reality, vastly inflating the risks and downplaying the benefits of vaccination), the promotion of vaccines free from “mercury, aluminum, and other dangerous ingredients” (mercury isn’t in childhood vaccines anymore and haven’t been for over 16 years, and none of the other ingredients in vaccines are dangerous at the doses used), and, of course, the “vaccine freedom” gambit. Elsewhere on the website, you can find videos by antivaxers such as the producer of the antivaccine propaganda film disguised as a documentary VAXXED, Del Bigtree, along with links to VAXXED itself and a host of other antivaccine propaganda videos. The reading list on the website includes the usual list of antivaccine books, and the “research” section of the website includes Pubmed links to studies frequently misinterpreted as supporting antivaccine views or horrible studies by antivaxers themselves.

Amusingly, Kim Stagliano over at the antivaccine blog Age of Autism is crying “Help, help, I’m being repressed!” as antivaxers are wont to do whenever they are called out by the press:

Wayne Rohde has written a carefully researched book on The Vaccine Court that every American should read. He moved to Minnesota from Oklahoma to help his son. His son Nick was the namesake of “Nicki’s Law” which in 2008, fought for medical coverage for autism in Oklahoma. Monday (May 19), two newspapers – both in predominantly Republican communities – published editorials in support of “Nick’s Law,” a measure by Senator Jay Paul Gumm that would require health insurance policies cover diagnosis and treatment for autistic children. Patti Carroll has worked tooth and nail for ALL people with autism in Minnesota and also to protect those not “yet” touched. She was especially involved in helping the immigrant Somali population as they faced autism for the very first time, once here in America. To offend them by writing them off as mere “antivaxxers” is an insult in the extreme.

It is all very well and good that Rohde fought to pass Nick’s Law (which ultimately did not pass, from what I gather), but it is not well and good that he now fights in Minnesota to demonize vaccines. As for Patti Carroll, I can’t help but note that the link chosen by Stagliano to represent the “good” she did for the Somali immigrant community in Minnesota was to a post entitled “MN Department of Public Health Coerces Somali Families into MMR Vaccine“, with an image proclaiming “the bully vaccine.” Basically, it’s a blog post by Patti Carroll about how she was trying to counter the MN Department of Public Health’s efforts to persuade Somalis to vaccinate their children. If you want an example of how antivaxers equate autism advocacy with their antivaccine activism, I can’t think of a better example! Stagliano and Carroll actually thought Carroll was doing good by fueling a measles outbreak by persuading a vulnerable population that vaccines cause autism and that they should therefore not vaccinate their children against a highly contagious disease.

Which leads us to Stagliano’s usual drama:

We are the new N word. We are the new R word. I was supposed to speak at an autism school somewhere in the United States in 2 weeks. I was hired as keynote speaker for their annual fund raiser. Some parents at this fine private school caught wind that “KIM ROSSI OH YOU MEAN STAGLIANO THE ANTIVAXXER” is being hired and guess what? They got me FIRED from the job. They cancelled my signed contract. I was really looking forward to meeting a new group and sharing my experiences by using my humor to make them laugh.

To which I say: Good for those parents! Well done! As for Stagliano, her comparison of the criticism and deserved ostracism that antivaxers experience to the racism and persecution that black people have suffered over centuries in this country is so overwrought and off-base as to be deeply offensive. I suppose I should be grateful that she didn’t compare herself to Jews during the Holocaust as well, because other antivaxers have done just that.

Getting back to Wayne Rhode, we see in an article in The Daily Beast that he invokes exactly the same persecution complex, just without the offensive analogies:

Abeler, who believes doctors should tell parents the “pluses and minuses of vaccines,” appointed anti-vaxxer Wayne Rohde, co-founder of the Vaccine Safety Council of Minnesota, a group that is skeptical of vaccines, and Patti Carroll, who was involved with organizing anti-vaccine outreach in the Minnesota Somali community.

Rohde refutes the label of “anti-vaxxer.” “Those who question vaccine safety are quickly marginalized as saying ‘We’re anti-vax,’” Rohde told the Star Tribune.

No, Rohde is called an antivaxer because that’s what he has demonstrated himself to be, through a long history of words and actions. He’s even written an antivaccine book, The Vaccine Court: The Dark Truth of America’s Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, full of misinformation about and mischaracterizations of the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. I can tell just from the blurbs that it includes the same sorts of misinformation and half-truths that the Canary Party, an antivaccine group associated with Jennifer Larson of the Vaccine Safety Council of Minnesota, has been pushing for at least six or seven years now.

Now, let’s look a bit at Abeler’s history with Rhodes and Carroll:

You can read the whole post on Facebook if you like, but I’ll quote relevant passages:

In spring 2018, Senator Jim Abeler SD 35 proposed legislastion [sic] for a statewide autism registry in Minnesota.

Following public outcry, particularly from the #actuallyautistic and greater disability justice community, the proposed legislation was pulled. After a community meeting, Sen. Abeler appointed two parent advocates, Jean Bender and Wayne Rhode, to design a new task force-type group for the state of MN. Dr. Sheryl Grassie, executive director of the MN Consortium of Citizens with Disabilities, volunteered to contribute as well. The Autism Spectrum Planning Group was formed.

It is very telling that Abeler picked an antivaxer as one of three key people who set up this task force! As for the others, Dr. Grassie seems legit, and Jean Bender is a board member for the Autism Society of Minnesota. That they would work with an antivaccine activist like Wayne Rhode does not speak well of them, however. It’s a deal with the devil that demands too much.

Of course, Abeler denies that vaccines will be an issue:

Abeler told the Daily Beast that the goal of the council is “to address the present and future needs for education, employment, housing, transportation and independent living in the autism community.” He added, “There is no plan or intention of taking any positions about vaccines.”

Rohde told the Star Tribune that while he does support parents’ rights not to vaccinate, “we’re not about causation within the council. The council is all about how to deal and help those who are afflicted, and their families and those who provide services.” Rohde has a son on the autism spectrum.

Of course, I don’t believe this for one second. Here’s why. Note the part about how the council is allegedly “all about how to deal and help those who are afflicted.” That’s basically code for adding autism quackery to the mix of “how to help” autistic people, and most autism quackery is based on pseudoscience claiming that vaccines cause autism. Don’t believe me? Think I’m reading too much into this phrase because I’ve been too close to the issue for too long, rather than that I know antivaccine code phrases? Well consider this.

As mentioned above, the original idea for the panel was the Autism Spectrum Planning Group and was born in the wake of the outcry over legislation that Sen. Abeler had introduced, SD 35, which would have created a statewide autism registry in Minnesota. Thus, the autism task force ultimately formed was, in essence, Plan B. However, that didn’t stop Abeler from going to Plan C when he didn’t like how the task force was turning out. After months of planning by a group that included autistic people, Abeler did this:

Over approximately four months, The ASPG met and developed a mission statement, a purpose statement, a group structure [sic], representation priorities, and a proposed list of members for The Minnesota Autism Council. The first meeting of the council was scheduled for November 8th, 2018.

Recently, two members of the group—Wayne Rhode and Dr. Sheryl Grassie, both original members—met privately with Sen. Abeler. As a result of that meeting, Sen Abeler scrapped both The ASPG and our progress. He then created a new work group, appointed leadership that includes no autistic members, and instructed them to form a council that does not reflect the priorities the ASPG spent four months identifying. The ASPG was not consulted or informed prior to Sen. Abeler’s announcement of these changes during the commitee [sic] hearing on 10/17/2018.

It is vital to note two things:

  1. These changes remove all autistic voices from the leadership team that will design and implement The Minnesota Autism Council.
  2. These changes implicitly invite multiple specific organizations to the table that prioritize treating and/or curing autism. These organizations were not included in the proposed membership developed by The ASPG.

Sen. Abeler is a chiropractor. Although he doesn’t mention autism on his website, it would not surprise me in the least if he treats autistic children, trying to “cure” them with adjustments. He has an autistic child. He knows antivaxers and thinks enough of them to appoint two of them to an important state council to advise the government on priorities and policies to help autistic people. If Sen. Abeler is not antivaccine (which, the more I read about him, the more I doubt), he’s at the very least what I like to call antivaccine-adjacent.

The pro-vaccine members of the panel are also laboring under this delusion:

“If their total focus was to come up with a recommendation related to vaccination, yes, it might give me pause,” she said. “But on the other hand, it seems this group is focusing more on how they can support families.”

Sonya Emerick, who is involved with the MN Autism Council, said she is worried about having vaccine skeptics in the group. But she wants to focus on the work, rather than lingering on that. If a group with such a wide range of opinions can move forward with shared policy priorities, she said it could have major effects on Minnesotans.

Sure, it will likely be this way in the beginning. However, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about antivaxers, it’s that they can’t keep their antivaccine pseudoscience from infecting everything they do, particularly when it comes to autism advocacy. Minnesota autism advocates know this:

Idil Abdull, a longtime autism advocate at the Capitol, was part of the previous task force and clashed with some members of the group. She is not part of Abeler’s committee, but has aired concerns with it.

“The fact that he appointed so many people from the anti-vaccine community who will try to divide us is heartbreaking,” Abdull said.

And that is exactly what will happen. It might not happen right away. Antivaxers can “play nice” for a while. However, eventually, their pseudoscientific beliefs will infect the deliberations. For example, it would not in the least bit surprise me if the antivaxers on the panel start advocating that the state support “autism biomed” quackery for autistic children or promote funding for alternative medicine practitioners like naturopaths. Belief in such quackery often goes hand-in-hand with the belief that vaccines cause autism, and it’s quite possible to promote antivaccine beliefs without explicitly mentioning vaccines. Promoting autism biomed quackery is one way to do that. Antivaxers know this, which is why they lobby so hard to attach themselves to government autism advocacy and advisory panels, even when the mission of the panel does not include childhood vaccination.

This is why antivaxers should never be on government panels. Such panels should indeed include people with a diversity of backgrounds, beliefs, and opinions, but it is essential not to think that “diversity” must mean including people with dangerous pseudoscientific beliefs. That, unfortunately, is exactly what Sen. Abeler and Minnesota have done. Meanwhile, in other states, antivaccine legislators are doing their best to make measles great again.